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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Lita: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Lithuania,
Editor: Prof. Dov Levin, Assistant Editor: Josef Rosin, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.


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Translations by Shimon Joffe

[Page 39]

Part 3: The Jews in independent Lithuania between the two World Wars

 

K) Their political and civil situation – from zenith to the nadir

        The integration of the Jews in the consolidation of the new state

Despite the discussions held during wartime between the leaders of the “Taryba” and the heads of the Jewish population in the matter of proper Jewish representation in the independent Lithuanian institutions, the first national government of Lithuania was formed on November 5th 1918, headed by A. Voldemaras, in which all the members were Lithuanians. Whereas a parallel government formed at the same time by communist activists (Bolsheviks), headed by V. Kapsukas, included two Jews: S. Dimenstein and A. Weinstein. This government received the support, military and political, of Soviet Russia. In view of the immediate danger from this quarter, as well as from the Poles, who wished to master all Lithuania, the members of the “Taryba” now showed greater flexibility in dealing with the Jewish demands, which were vigorously supported by important bodies such as the Lithuanian Zionist Conference (held in the beginning of December 1918). As a result of intensive negotiations with the “Taryba”, three Jews were co-opted to it; Dr Ya'akov Wigodski (Zionist), advocate Shimshon Rosenboim (Zionist) and Dr Nachman Rachmilewitch (Agudat Israel). The trio was also included in the new national government formed on December 26th 1918 under M. Slezevicius: Wigodski (Minister Without Portfolio), Rosenboim (Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs) and Rachmilewitch (Vice Minister of Trade and Industry).

The first issue of “The Temporary Government Gazette” was published in Yiddish as well as Lithuanian. But in January 1919, the Lithuanian government was forced by pressure of the Soviet forces, to move from Vilna to Kovno. Dr Wigodski refused to leave the Vilna community, and Dr Max Soloveitchik, Bible redactor and editor of Zionist publications, a member of an old and respectable family in Kovno, was appointed in his stead as minister for Jewish affairs. Vice Minister Rosenboim and other Jewish personalities took upon themselves the task of representing the interests of Lithuania in the West and in international forums.

The government issued a call on December 29, 1918 (in four languages, including Yiddish) for volunteers to defend the country from invaders, and 500 Jews joined the ranks out of ten thousand volunteers. There was a positive response on the part of the Jews to the general mobilization of the 1892-1893 birth groups to the national Lithuanian army being formed. Approximately one third of the 400 members of the semi military organization – the Sauliai (sharpshooters), organized in 1920 in Kovno - were Jewish. 23 Jewish fighters who showed great bravery in battle received the highest military order, the Vycio Kryziaus, at least 73 Jewish soldiers fell in battle.

        Preparations for Autonomy status

During the fighting against the Bolsheviks and afterwards, there were anti-Jewish riots in a number of places by officers and privates of the National Lithuanian army.

After vigorous protests by the leaders of the Jewish public the government published, on June 18th 1919, a manifesto in which it condemned the outburst against the Jews as serving the interests of the enemies of the state. The manifesto also included a warning that anyone guilty of harming the Jews would be punished with all the vigor of the law.

In view of the importance laid upon obtaining the sympathy and the assistance of world Jewry in the strengthening of the political and economic basis of the renewed Lithuania, the country's leadership agreed to many of the demands raised by the Jewish minority for far-reaching autonomy status. A statement of principle on the subject was included in a letter sent on August 5th 1919, by the Lithuanian delegation to the peace conference in Paris, headed by Voldemaras, to the Jewish delegation to the conference.

In addition to establishing the equal legal status of the Jews in the elected and executive institutions, recognition of their right to use their language publicly and so on, there are included in this document, known as the Paris Declaration, two final paragraphs, 7) and 8), which include the idea of autonomy.

  1. The Jews enjoy autonomy in internal matters, including religious matters, charity, social assistance, education and culture. The autonomous bodies are the local communities and the federation of communities. Special law will establish their representation and that of the federation. Study in primary Jewish schools will be compulsory and free.
  2. The national autonomous Jewish bodies, as well as territorial autonomous bodies, are considered governmental bodies, and are permitted to adopt decisions within their scope of activity and authority, which obligate their fellow nationals and impose special taxes to cover their expenses. As to citizen rights, the federation and the communities enjoy the rights of legal entities.

On the basis of this declaration, the minister in charge of Jewish affairs appealed to all the Jewish inhabitants (excluding the ones living in Vilna which had come under Polish hegemony) to implement the process of electing the community committees, as per detailed regulations which had been enacted by his office and included clear details as to the form of elections and their conduct. In the large communities the elections were to be proportional (per political lists presented by the candidates). In the smaller communities (those with less than one thousand members), elections were to be personal. The right to elect and be elected was given to every Jew over the age of twenty, irrespective of gender. In the elections held in 1919, over ten political lists competed and one thousand two hundred and eighty committee members were elected, divided as follows: General Zionists – 89, Young Zion – 104, Hamizrachi – 45, Achdut (Agudat Israel) – 101, Young (Agudat) Israel – 18, Artisans – 65, Workers (Communists) – 84, Non party – 166, other lists – 619. Based on these elections, 185 community committees were formed as of the second half of the year 1919, in most of the Jewish locations in Lithuania. Immediately after their elections, these bodies became an important factor in organized Jewish life, and that, before they received full legal status.

 

Statement published by the Minister for Jewish Affairs, Kovno

Declaration
By the Minister for Jewish Affairs

In this serious political moment, as I enter into your ranks as a member of the government, I esteem it my duty to publish the following declaration which expresses the political thoughts and aspirations of broad sections of the Jewish public, who have delegated me to be their representative.

From the time the Lithuanian independence movement took on a clear political form, the progressive Jewish sectors have, in recognition of their common interests with those of the Lithuanian democracy, taken a clear stand at their side and marched hand in hand with the wide masses of the Lithuanian population in the struggle for the freeing of all the nations of the former Russian kingdom.

The War and the expulsion of Jews from Lithuania had broken the link which had been forged over many years of political co-operation, and therefore, the rebuilding of the state, which began with the liquidation of the German occupation, did not find an immediate active echo among the Jewish population…

Section of the declaration issued by the Minister for Jewish Affairs, Dr M. Soloweichik. Minister.

On January 10th 1920, the government of Lithuania enacted the interim law regarding the right of the Jewish community committees to impose taxes upon the Jewish population. The following are the details:

  1. All Jews living in a community are members of the local Jewish community. The community provides the means for religious worship, charity, welfare, schools and all matters of spiritual culture and they have the right to elect the local community committee.

    Comment; Places too small to have an independent committee will join onto a nearby community and will jointly elect the management committee.

  2. The minister without portfolio in charge of Jewish matters will enact regulations for these elections and will ratify and register the committees elected under these regulations.
  3. The committee confirmed by the minister without portfolio for Jewish matters are permitted to act to supply the needs under para. 1) and to impose special taxes on the Jewish population for this purpose.
  4. Each committee will decide on the system of taxation and the Minister for Jewish Matters will confirm it.
  5. The amount of tax each individual will have to pay to the community committee should not be larger than the amount of tax payable to the government and the city in the same year.
  6. The committees themselves collect the taxes and transfer them to the treasury. Whoever does not pay these taxes will have them collected according to the general arrangement for tax collection. If there should arise the need to collect the tax from the property of one who did not pay, the state tax will be covered before the community tax.
  7. As to the manner in which the law will be implemented, the Minister Without Portfolio for Jewish affairs will promulgate “instructions”, after discussions with the appropriate ministers.

On the basis of para.7), the Minister Without Portfolio for Jewish Affairs met with the Ministers of Interior, Education and Finance, and after difficult negotiations published, on March 20th 1920, the “instructions” for the implementation of the Communities Law. Among others, it included the following regulations: only one community may exist in any one place; the community committee is the only representative of the Jewish population in that place; the Jewish communities are also legal entities, possessing all the appropriate rights; as to stamp tax, the rule is the same for documents submitted to the community committee as for documents submitted by law to the local authorities; the property of charitable and Jewish educational institutions which stopped their activities (before the war) is inherited by the community, and can be used only for educational or charitable purposes; in order to determine a single system of taxation for the communities and to co-ordinate their activities, representatives of the communities will confer together in committee. The regulations also contained instructions for the determining of budgets and the collection of taxes.

All the community committees carried out these regulations to a greater or lesser extent. During the activities of the community committees, it transpired that the part of the income from compulsory tax grew greatly and added up to some 60% of the total income. In 80% of the cases, the tax was paid without the need for special means or enforcement (by the use of the local police). Additional sources of income were grants made by the local authorities, income from various institutions connected with the community and from the slaughter of beasts and birds, grants from the National Committee (vide below) and from Jewish institutions abroad.

Among the principal expense items were: welfare payments, medical assistance, education and culture (including support to schools to supplement their budgets), providing religious services (including the employment of rabbis), office expenses and public buildings. Each community committee appointed an executive committee which saw to the carrying out of its decisions, and dealt with current matters. In addition, various committees were elected which dealt with matters such as; taxes, welfare, religious services, cultural activities etc. Most of the community committees lodged in offices and employed a number of paid employees.

In accordance with the government decision of October 1th 1920, the community committees were given the task of keeping the Matric (register of births and deaths, marriages and divorces) of the Jewish population. These registrations were recorded in Yiddish and Lithuanian. On December 20th 1920, the committees were recognized as self-governing municipal bodies and their mail, accordingly, did not require stamps. Correspondence with community committees or with other Jewish institutions, including government offices (such as the Ministry of Jewish Affairs), was conducted in Yiddish or Hebrew. Forms and seals, letter headings etc which were used for correspondence by the committees were printed in at least one of these languages, as well as in Lithuanian.

        Autonomy in practice -The Golden Age

After the election of most of the local community committees, a national convention was called on January 5th 1920, with the participation of 141 delegates elected from 82 places. In fact, this was the first representative convention of Lithuanian Jewry since the meeting of the Lithuanian Council some 120 years earlier. On the political-ideological level most of the delegates divided into three cluster: Zionists (including Mizrachi and Young Israel)-61; Achdut (Unity) (including Agudath Israel and Young Israel)-61, Folkspartei (Peoples Party) and Artisans-23. In addition to these, 3 non-party representatives were elected as well. The convention elected a governing body consisting of 34 members. The body was called in Yiddish Natzional Rat (national committee), and in Hebrew; “Va'ad Ha'aretz Hayehudi Be'eretz Lita” (National Jewish Committee in the Land of Lithuania). In short “Va'ad Ha'aretz.” Dr S. Rosenboim of the General Zionists was elected president and Dr N. Rachmilevitch of Achdut and Advocate E. Finkelstein of the Folkspartei were elected his deputies. An executive committee of ten members was elected to carry out the decisions and proposals of the convention in the economic, political and cultural sphere. A few dozen clerks and experts assisted them. The Minister for Jewish Affairs and this committee collaborated closely.

Formally, the Jewish Minister Without Portfolio was a member of the Lithuanian government and participated in all its deliberations while vigorously guarding and espousing the Jewish interests. He was also in charge of fulfilling paragraphs 2, 4, and 7 of the communities law mentioned above. In addition to the minister's bureau, the ministry also had departments of law, education, community instruction and inspection, welfare and a spokesman. In time, the staff expanded to 30 employees.

Following the advice of the “National Council” the great majority of the 44,000 Jewish registered voters voted in the elections for the constituent assembly of the Sejm (the Lithuanian parliament), on April 14th 1920, for the agreed Jewish list. Among the 112 delegates elected were 6 Jews: Drs S. Rosenboim and M. Soloweichik (Zionists); Dr N. Rachmilewich and Rabbi A. Popel (Achdut); and advocates Naftali Friedman and Ozer Finkelstein (Folkspartei).

When the Poles under the command of general Zhiligowsky placed the Vilna area under its rule, the “National Council” expressed the support of the Jewish population in the defense activities taken by the Lithuanian government and initiated the registration of Jewish volunteers to the Lithuanian army, organized centers of food distribution to soldiers etc. Dr Soloweichik and other Jewish personae participated in delegations sent abroad to raise public opinion against the Polish assault on Lithuania. The Jews of Vilna, who again were cut off from their brethren in Lithuania by an impassable border, expressed in various ways their negative attitude to the Polish conquest. Among other actions, they boycotted the elections to the Vilna Sejm, which approved the annexation of the Vilna region to Poland.

In spite of the expressions of patriotism by Lithuanian Jewry on both sides of the border, the Jewish delegates to the Sejm constituent assembly encountered a growing tendency on the part of most Lithuanian sections to limit, and indeed, to abolish some of the achievements of the Jewish minority such as the right to use their language in public, the standing of the Ministry of Jewish Affairs etc. The demands were explained by the argument that the Jews want to create a state within the state and to enjoy great privileges, which are not their due. Thanks to the strong and coordinated fight waged by the Jewish delegates and the Minister for Jewish Affairs (who temporarily resigned his post), and as a result of the Jewish public opinion in the world, the opposition to Jewish autonomy, with the Christian-Democrats at their head, retreated from their extreme position and agreed to compromise. In this spirit two clauses were drafted, 73 and 74, enshrining the special rights of the Jews and of the other national minorities in Lithuania.

Approximately at the same time, many cases occurred where Jewish soldiers released from military service did not receive land for farming from the government contrary to the promises of June 20th 1919 to do so “without regard to national or religious affinity of the soldier.” According to the law passed by the Sejm Constituent Assembly in June 1920, the land was meant to be given to those who were able to work it.

The second Council convention, which took place on February 14th 1922, with the participation of 130 delegates, was devoted mainly to matters of education. In addition to the factions, which participated in the previous convention, the Jewish Communists and Poalei Zion Smol also took part. 40 representatives made up the new National Council: Achdut (Agudath Israel)-16; Tze'irei Zion-11; General Zionists-7; Mizrachi-4; Folkspartei-2. During the discussions about education a great gap was seen to exist between those who supported secular schooling as against the ones who demanded that it be religious only. Because of this and other issues, the delegates from Achdut resigned from the National Council and even boycotted the elections to the largest representative framework of Lithuanian Jewry – the National Assembly – consisting of 80 delegates, which met on February 20th 1923. Amongst the resolutions adopted after lengthy discussions were: the demand that the authority and inspection of Jewish education be devolved to the autonomous institutions; the representation of Lithuanian Jewry in the councils of the Jewish Agency for Eretz Israel and the repeated demand that the National Council be given full legal status.

        The Decline

FOOD LIST

“MENU”

For the friends feast in honour of
Dr M. Soloweichik of Kovno
Tuesday, xxxxxxxxxxx

YYYYYYY

Sweet and Sharp á là Chalastra of the Rosbit
Salty á là meeting of the Lithuanian National Committee
Brandy á là Speech at the community's convention
Cooked Fish á là the Zionist Executive
Cognac á là Parliamentary combination
Roasts á là Jewish Autonomy in Lithuania
Vegetables á là Hebrew Schools in Lithuania
Pastries á là Holy Books
Dessert á là Ministry of Jewish Affairs
Fruit á là General Jewish Congress
˜
Light hearted and political menu at the dinner given for
Dr M. Soloweichik at his departure From Lithuania in 1923

While the achievements of Jewish autonomy were at their height, there was no shortage also of assaults against Jews: the political establishment plotted to diminish the rights granted the Jews, and the Minister for Jewish Affairs, M. Soloweichik, resigned as a result. The government appointed another in his place, Bernard Friedman, an assimilated Jew, but the majority of the Jewish public ignored him, and a few months later the ministry was abolished. The National Council came to an end not much later. It had met for an emergency meeting on September 17 1924, and the police dispersed it without prior warning. Without the two central representative bodies, Lithuanian Jewry remained with only the Sejm faction as its official representative.

The difficulties the Sejm representatives had to struggle with began with the counting of the electoral ballots. In the elections to the first Sejm, on September 13th 1922, 55,000 Jewish voters cast their votes, which constituted 6.8% of the total votes (as against 6.1% participants in the constituent assembly). The Zionists received 65% of the votes, Achduth 30% and the Socialists and the Folks received 5%. But as a result of a distorted interpretation by the Electoral Committee, only three Jewish delegates were included in the Sejm; Dr Yosef Berger, Dr Julius Brutskus and Advocate Leib Garfunkel, all members of the Zionist camp.

Despite the numerical disadvantage of the Jewish faction it succeeded, together with the other minority factions, to bring about within a short time the dispersion of the Sejm. In order to overcome the unfair interpretation of the electoral results by the Electoral Committee, the Jews contested the elections to the Second Sejm as a joint list (a technical bloc), together with the other national minority groups and thanks to this maneuver they sent 14 delegates to the Sejm: 7 Jews, 4 poles, 2 Germans, 1 Russian. The Jewish members were: Dr S. Rosenboim, Dr Ya'akov Robinson, Meshulam Wolf – General Zionists, Aizik Brudni – Socialists, L. Garfunkel – Tze'irei Zion, Rabbi Yosef-Shlomo Kahaneman – Achdut and Ozer Finkelstein – Folkspartei. During the three years existence of the Second Sejm (from May 1923 toMay 1926), a number of changes took place in the faction: Yosef Roginski of the Jewish Merchants Association replaced Brudni; Dr Yitzkhak Refael Halevi Holtzberg Etzion of Achduth replaced Wolf; Abramowich of the Artisans Association replaced Rabbi Kahaneman and Dr B. Berger of the General Zionists replaced S. Rosenboim, who was appointed Lithuanian consul in Tel Aviv.

The Christian-Democratic block, which had already in the past shown its hostility to the Jewish faction and had in the Second Sejm an absolute numerical advantage. This forced the Jewish delegates to struggle most of the time under difficult conditions and almost without any political allies. Even when the hostile block blocked the entry of Jewish delegates to most of the Sejm committees, the other factions, including the Socialists and Social Democrats did not protest. Despite the stubborn struggle of the Jewish faction, it did not succeed in preventing the passage of laws which were particularly injurious to the Jewish populace, such as forbidding all commercial, trade and industrial activity on Sundays; the duty to keep books and correspondence in the Lithuanian language; taxation rules which discriminated against Jewish industrialists, artisans and merchants etc. Supported by the majority, the government ordered that all signs, advertising and other public notices appear only in the Lithuanian language. As a result, many business or professional notices written in Yiddish in a number of Lithuanian towns were often smeared with tar. In 1926, the right of the community committee to impose taxes, to register births etc. was removed. In consultation with the community heads, the Jewish faction initiated the formation of two companies to take over the community property and to use it for the benefit of the Jewish population.

 

Zionist Center 1923
Sitting, right to left: Dr M. Wolf, Dr A. Lapin, Dr Shimshon Rosenboim, Dr D.M. Schwarz, Dr Binyamin Berger.
Standing; right to left; A. Idelson, Mordekhai Yatkunski, A. Alperin, L. Chernes, L. Rabinowitz, Moshe Cohen

 

In the religious sphere the society Adat Israel was active in all the communities and the society Ezra provided social welfare. The registration of births and deaths devolved upon the local rabbis. These arrangements, and others, were in fact, a sad sign of the dissolution of the communities, which had been democratically elected, and thus the last essential element of the autonomous Lithuanian Jewish society was terminated.

Nevertheless, in spite of the deteriorating situation, Lithuanian Jewry entered the elections to the third Sejm basically divided into two camps: on the one hand the united democratic grouping (General Zionists, Hamizrachi, Young Zion Association, and the Commoners (Folkspartei), and on the other hand the Religious Economic list (Achdut and a few industrialists), and in addition a further list of property owners headed by Leib Chodosh. Due to the division and other causes only three delegates were elected from the united list: L. Garfunkel, E. Finkelstein and Dr I. Rabinson, and they constituted the Jewish faction. A further delegate to the third Sejm was Dr Epstein, who was elected on the Lithuanian Socialist list, but he did not belong to the Jewish faction.

Although the Christian Democrats no longer had a majority in the third Sejm, the Jewish faction was not able to abolish the laws which had brought about the termination of Jewish autonomy. In large measure, they were overshadowed by the sharp political struggle between right and left in Lithuania which prepared the ground for the nationalist fascist coup in December 1926, and the dissolution of the Sejm a short while afterwards.

Some of the achievements of the autonomy period remained even during the dictatorial political regime imposed on Lithuania after the coup of 1926. Among them, the educational system and the chain of popular Jewish banks spread over the country.

 

[Page 46]

L) Demography and Statistics

After the founding of independent Lithuania there remained a bare third of the Jewish population which had lived there before the First World War. The loss was particularly felt over the hundred thousand Jews who had been expelled or fled during the war,from their communities in the Zhamut region and other parts of the Kovno district. Many of the refugees who survived the hardships of the war years in Russia already began to return under their own limited means in 1918. After the signing of the Soviet-Lithuanian peace treaty in July 1920, the returnees were brought by rail to the Lithuanian border (generally to the town of Obeliai) where they were kept in quarantine for a few days to check their health and papers. After that they dispersed in every direction and their movement continued for two to three years. During the same period local Jews left the country in unknown numbers.

The huge reduction in the number of Lithuanian Jews is accounted for by the annexation of Vilna and the surrounding area to Poland. After the League of Nations acquiesced in 1923 to this fact, this made Kovno the temporary capital of Lithuania and cut off some 70,000 Vilna Jews from their “Kovno” brethren. An almost impassable border euphemistically called the “Administrative Line” separated the two sides. Only once a year, at the Tet Be'Av Fast, were the Jewish families of both sides of the border permitted to meet in the cemetery of the border town Linkmenys.

According to the census taken in Lithuania on September 7th 1923, in which were counted slightly more than two million inhabitants, 153,743 residents (7.6% of the total population) defined themselves as being of the Mosaic and Israelite faith. In addition, there were 1,382 Jews defined in the census as stateless temporary residents.

The composition of the population of Lithuania, at that time, was as follows:

 

Table 15: I of Lithuania, inhabitants by national affiliation

Nationality Number Percentage
All nationalities 2,028,971 100.00
Lithuanians 1,701,863 83.9
Jews 153,743 7.6
Poles 65,599 3.2
Russians 50,460 2.5
Germans 29,231 1.4
Latvians 14,283 0.7
White Russians 4,421 0.2
Other 8,771* 0.3*

* The above number includes stateless temporary residents, amongst them 1,382 Jews;
also, included are 150 residents who defined themselves as Karaites.

 

The Jewish ratio of the population declined from 13.8% from before the First World War to approximately half, but now as before, the Jews constituted the largest national minority. According to the census the Jews lived in 300 settlements in 20 counties, as detailed in Table 16.

Close to two thirds of Lithuanian Jewry (63.5%) lived in four large cities (the temporary capital Kovno, Panevezys, Shavli and Vilkomir (Ukmerge)), and in 33 small towns (each containing on average 1,500 souls). Over one third (36%) lived in small towns or little urban areas, and a bare 0.5% lived in villages and country estates. In the cities the Jews constituted close to one third of the local population. In spite of the absolute increase of the Jewish population in the cities (for reasons of natural increase and migration from the small towns), their actual proportion in the total population decreased over the years due to the endless movement of Lithuanian peasants to the cities. In the small towns the number of Jews declined due to emigration abroad and the flow of youths to the cities.

Following the annexation of the city of Memel (Klaipeda) and its surroundings to Lithuania and also as a result of the thin stream of immigrants, which still continued from Russia, 2,042 people were added to the Jewish population. According to estimates made by the Lithuanian authorities, the country contained in 1926 157,527 (7.3% of the total population) defined as belonging to the Mosaic Israelite faith. As a result of the events of the First World War the Jewish population contained 109 females for every 100 males. In absolute figures that meant there were 81,989 females against 75,538 males. A similar ratio existed in the general population, 110 females as against 100 males. The age grouping (see Table 17) among the Jews was similar to that of the local population.

 

Table 16: Jewish population in Lithuania, by districts (1923)

District Total
Population
Jews*
No. of
people
No. of
souls
% of total
population
% of total
Jews
All districts 2,028,971 153,743 7.6 100.00
Alytus 109,678 7,729 7.1 5.5
Birzai 115,186 4,945 4.3 3.2
Kovno 191,864 31,428 16.4 20.4
Kedainiai 86,099 5,464 6.3 3.6
Kretinga 93,875 5,816 6.2 3.8
Marijampole 99,290 6,407 6.5 4.2
Mazeikai 71,104 3,999 5.6 2.6
Panevezys 138,917 12,455 9.0 8.1
Raseiniai 108,024 8,149 7.5 5.3
Rokiskis 83,220 5,108 6.1 3.3
Sainiai ** 38,207 5,172 5.7 1.4
Sakiai 67,474 2,978 4.4 1.9
Shavli 198,015 13,499 6.8 8.8
Taurge 110,965 6,168 5.6 4.0
Telsiai 80,452 6,308 7.8 4.1
Trakai ** 78,636 4,338 5.5 2.8
Vilkomir 126,311 8,174 6.5 5.3
Utena 108,960 8,043 7.4 5.2
Vilkaviskis 80,609 7,161 8.9 4.7
Zarasai 42,657 3,402 8.0 2.2

* In internal censuses by the Jewish autonomous authorities, greater numbers were found, as some did not define themselves as Jews in the general census.
** Lithuanian part of the district, which was not annexed to Poland.

 

Table 17: The Jewish and non-Jewish population of Lithuania
by age and gender (percentages)

Age
groups
Age
composition
No. of females
per 100 males
Jews Non
Jews
Jews Non
Jews
All ages 100.0 100.0 109 110
0-9 17.00 18.9 95 99
10-19 24.8 24.2 98 102
20-49 38.9 38.6 117 129
50-69 15.4 14.2 102 112
70 plus 3.9 4.1 102 112

 

In the years following the 1923 census, the authorities continued to systematically update the essential data of changes in the population as well as in the national makeup. Even though the data may not be exact, because technical and other reasons made it difficult to record them constantly or to analyze them, they nevertheless reflect the demographic changes which took place in Jewish Lithuanian society largely in the period between the two World Wars, namely during 1923-1939.

 

Table 18: Changes in the Lithuanian Jewish population (1923-1939)

Year Marriages Births Deaths Natural
Increase
Emigration
abroad
1929-1939 17,887 38,265 24,372 13,833 25,088
1923 988 2,633 1,003 1,630
1924 1,074 2,544 1,086 1,368 2,250
1925 1,084 2,513 1,057 1,456 1,671
1926 965 2,534 1,343 1,191 2,828
1927 1,042 2,676 1,488 1,188 4,441
1928 1,060 2,636 1,224 1,412 1,664
1929 1,066 2,558 1,640 918 2,825
1930 1,033 2,314 1,562 752 1,736
1931 1,027 2,301 1,482 819 1,098
1932 991 2,318 1,507 811 717
1933 1,252 2,193 1,574 619 1,020
1934 1,200 1,973 1,527 446 1,101
1935 1,304 1,812 1,543 269 1,418
1936 1,111 1,813 1,500 313 1,007
1937 1,190 1,815 1,617 198 447
1938 1,290 1,886 1,550 366 426
1939 1,201 1,776 1,669 107 439

 

The above data shows that in the above period there was a reduction in the number of births among Jews. This was caused, in part, by the loss of young people emigrating abroad, but even more by the aging population and the increasing number of deaths. As a further result, the birth rate diminished year by year and the Jewish population of Lithuania decreased also in absolute numbers. The above is seen more clearly when compared to the process taking place in the non-Jewish population, as illustrated in Table 19.

Whereas the rate of deaths of non-Jews was higher than that of the Jews by a ratio of 1.5, the ratio of births of non-Jews was twice as high. As a result, the rate of growth of the non-Jewish population was almost twice that of the Jewish one. The increased rate of marriage among the Jews (particularly from 1933 onwards) was due, in part, to the visa preference given by a number of countries to couples holding citizenship or entry rights. Many of these marriages were what were known as “sham marriages”, in other words, marriage for the purpose of immigration only.

 

Table 19: Marriages, Births and Deaths per 1000 population, Jews and non-Jews (1922-1939)

Period Marriages Births Deaths Natural
increase
Jews Non
Jews
Jews Non Jews Jews Non
Jews
Jews Non
Jews
1922-1939 (Average) 7.2 7.8 14.9 26.5 9.2 15.3 5.7 11.2
1922-1926 7.0 7.6 16.7 27.7 7.1 16.2 9.6 11.5
1926-1931 6.8 8.1 16.0 28.3 9.1 16.3 6.9 12.0
1932-1936 7.7 7.8 13.5 25.6 10.2 14.6 3.3 11.0
1937-1939 7.6 7.6 12.2 23.0 10.9 13.4 1.3 9.6

 

Notwithstanding the trend towards secularization of Lithuanian Jewry, there took place close to Jewish 20,000 weddings in almost 20 years in which both parties were Jewish. Mixed marriages – Jews with partners of other nationalities or other religions – were very rare (not more than 2-5 such weddings per annum). Also, the number of Jewish females marrying gentiles was double the number of Jewish males marrying gentile females.

In the early days of independence, Lithuania was a transit point for many Jews moving from Russia to the western countries. There was no orderly registration of people entering and leaving. Full details of the movement of people going abroad including permanent residents exist only from 1923. Following in table 20 are details, in percentages, of Lithuanian Jewish emigrants compared to other national groups.

 

Table 20: Emigration of Lithuanian residents by nationality and citizenship (1929-1939)

Year Numbers Percentage
Total Lithuanian citizens Non-
citizens
Jewish Lithuanian Poles Russian German Other
1929 15,999 100.0 17.7 75.2 0.7 2.7 1.8 0.7 1.2
1930 6,428 100.0 27.0 65.1 0.3 1.0 1.6 0.2 4.8
1931 1,756 100.0 62.5 27.1 0.2 0.3 1.5 0.3 8.1
1932 1,001 100.0 71.7 22.2 0.2 0.9 0.4 0.4 4.2
1933 13,00 100.0 78.5 18.3 0.9 0.4 0.4 4.2
1934 1,521 100.0 72.4 22.7 0.5 2.2 0.6 1.6
1935 1,911 100.0 74.2 19.2 4.6 0.2 0.6 1.2
1936 1,707 100.0 59.0 23.8 0.1 14.8 0.2 0.1 2.0
1937 979 100.0 45.2 49.7 0.7 0.3 0.6 3.5
1938 1,673 100.0 52.5 45.2 0.7 1.2 0.4
1939 605* 100.0 72.6 24.4 0.5 0.2 0.2 2.1

* It would appear that the numbers do not include Polish war refugees who began to arrive in Lithuania at the end of 1939.

 

In those years the emigration of Jews and non-Jews shrank considerably. The reason for this would appear to be the restrictions imposed on the would-be immigrants by the receiving countries. At the same time, the number of Jewish emigrants grew to be four times that of the non-Jews, whereas the extent of the emigration of the majority nation went down to almost half. Despite the restrictions imposed by the intended host countries in the last years before the Second World War the Jews constituted a majority among the emigrants from Lithuania.

Approximately two thirds of the Jewish emigrants left for South Africa, Palestine and the United States. The Lithuanian immigrants, by comparison, migrated to the American continent, Canada, USA, Brazil and the Argentine, as can be seen on Table 21.

 

Table 21: Jewish emigration from Lithuania, by host countries (1929-1939)

Year Total Eretz
Israel
USA South
Africa
Argentine Brazil Canada Uruguay Other
1929 2,825** 146 268 12,225*** 329 145 189 387 118
1930 1,736* 80 183 772 202 59 193 165 77
1931 1,098 110 93 454 28 16 3 80 314
1932 717 189 41 290 20 31 31 50 65
1933 1,020 671 41 194 24 26 10 25 29
1934 1,101 646 61 263 25 33 15 41 17
1935 1,418 942 85 255 31 28 10 33 34
1936 1,007 501 60 262 39 38 37 33 37
1937 447 50 129 155 41 8 5 31 28
1938 426 101 158 109 34 5 19
1939 439 66 187 103 5 10 42 1 2
1929-1939 12,234** 3,504* 1,304 4,082 778 394 540 846 76
1929-1939 100.0% 28.6% 10.8% 33.3% 6.3% 3.2% 4.4% 6.9% 6.5%

* According to statistics of the Govt. of Palestine (Eretz Israel), 9,592 persons entered legally during the period October 1921 until May 1939. Hundreds, if not more, should be added to the above number, of persons who entered illegally.
** Translator's note: In this row, the individual figures do not match the total. While the “Total” figures in this table are correct other figures were collated from various sources and could not always be verified. The figures for Eretz Israel and for South Africa are particularly suspect.
*** Translator's note: this is probably the figure for an entire decade, and the figure for 1929 should be 1,243.

 

Unlike that of the Lithuanians, whose emigration rate halved, the rate of emigration of the Jews from Lithuania remained stable. Even towards the end of the thirties, when the restrictions on entry into the host countries brought down the numbers of immigrants, the Jews nevertheless (including temporary residents), constituted a majority of the immigrants.

This constant factor had influenced greatly the size of the Jewish population of Lithuania between the two wars. Compared to the 25,000 Jewish emigrants, the rate of the natural growth was only half of that number. From the middle of the thirties, Jewish refugees began to arrive in Lithuania in various ways, from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, and some received temporary residence rights. All told, there were approximately 150,000 Jews in Lithuania before the Second World War. During 42 years (1897-1939) the ratio of the Jewish minority in the country fell by half from 13.8% to 6.2%.

Immediately after the outbreak of the War and the return of Vilna and its surrounding region to Lithuania in October 1939 some 70,000 Jews were reunited with their brethren after a 19-year separation. In addition, some 15,000-war refugees swarmed into Lithuania by the end of 1939 from different parts of Poland occupied by the Germans and the Soviets. In 1940, after Lithuania turned into a Soviet republic, a number of other areas adjoining Vilna were added, inhabited by some 5,000 Jews. At the same time, hundreds of Lithuanian Jews who had found themselves under the Nazi regime or the Vichy government returned from western Europe. Hundreds, or perhaps more, Jewish army personnel and officials from White Russia and other Soviet regions arrived. It may be assumed that the total number of Jews in Soviet Lithuania in 1940 stood at 240,000-250,000 souls.

 

[Page 49]

M) Jews in the economy and society

Most of the Jews who were banished to the Russian interior during the First World War and who returned after the war found themselves penurious. Many found their homes or businesses ruined or plundered. Within a few years many succeeded in re-establishing themselves through the aid of their relatives living abroad, or by the aid of organizations such as “Yekofo”, “the Joint”, and “the Foundation” (a shortened version of the name “American Joint Reconstruction Foundation”, a fund for economic recovery created by the Joint after the First World War). The reconstruction fund of the Joint invested much money in the rebuilding of 1,333 houses and in the repair of 356 houses in over 75 communities. In addition, the Fund gave 83 loans for the repair of houses totaling $166,066. Out of some 24 million Marks distributed by the Joint in Lithuania at the end of the War, 2.5 million went to artisans, co-operatives received 900,000 and farmers 400,000 Marks. Thanks to the generous financial help granted by this organization dozens of friendly loan societies (Gmilut Chasadim) restarted their activities and new ones came into being. Thanks to the assistance given by these societies many of the returnees renewed their economic activities either as self employed or wage earners. There were also others who started their own new business.

The census of 1923 counted 83,791 Lithuanian Jews active economically who supported themselves and a further 50,000 dependents. An analysis of the data of the Jewish breadwinners by major economic sectors in comparison to other national groups in Lithuania, is given in the following table:

 

Table 22: Livelihood of Lithuanians in 1923, by economic sectors
and by ethnicity of breadwinners (in percent)

Sector All populace Jews Lithuanians Poles Russians Germans
All sectors 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Agriculture 78.0 6.0 84.5 83.3 78.4 58.6
Industry & Crafts 10.4 21.6 4.2 5.7 7.6 17.6
Trade & Finance 2.4 30.0 0.5 0.7 0.8 2.5
Transport & communication 1.0 2.8 0.8 0.6 1.1 2.6
Clerical & Professional 5.0 5.0 3.7 1.7 3.2 3.4
Various 3.2 34.6 6.3 8.0 8.9 15.3

 

In the absence of details of the last item “various”, it may be assumed that it refers to casual employment, rent receivers, conscript soldiers and such like. Under the item “clerical and professional” It may be assumed this includes, among others, the thousand teachers and instructors as well as doctors and lawyers. It is known that, at that time, 391 doctors were active in Lithuania, and 40% of these were Jews. A great many included in the item “transport” were carters, but among them were also owners of motor vehicles, drivers and mechanics.

The proportion of Jews who engaged in farming (and also in fishing and related sectors) and made their living by these activities, was lower than that of the other national groups in Lithuania. But it is also the highest among the Jews in Europe. The majority of Jewish farmers lived in towns, villages and estates (mostly in the areas of the ex-Suvalki district). The ones who lived off fishing resided mostly in communities near rivers and lakes. In the process of agrarian reform, land was confiscated also from Jewish-held estates and given to Lithuanian peasants. But the reform did not benefit the Jewish soldier participants in the struggle for Lithuanian independence and privileged to receive land. Except for a few cases, hundreds of applications to receive a parcel of land submitted by Jews were refused. A great part of the land worked by Jews was not owned by them and had to be leased. As mentioned, in many towns Jews had auxiliary farms, which provided some livelihood or additional income.

Whereas for the majority of the nation (particularly the Lithuanians) agriculture was the primal source of income, the income of the Jews was derived basically from town activity, particularly commerce, industry and crafts. 43,239 Jews engaged in these activities – 25,132 in commerce and finance and 18,107 in industry and craft. The great importance of these sectors among the Jews, within the national context, can be seen from the table hereunder:

 

Table 23: Employed in Lithuania in 1923 in industry and commerce, by sector and nationality (in percent)

Nationality Commerce
and Crafts
Industry
All Nationals 100.0 100.0
Jews 77.5 21.3
Lithuanians 17.5 66.3
Poles 1.0 3.0
Russians 0.8 3.0
Germans 1.4 3.6
Others 1.8 2.8

 

Compared to their percentage within the total population (7.6%), the proportion of Jews engaged in commerce was ten times larger and in industry and crafts three times larger.

The great majority of Jews (95.2% out of 25,132 living off commerce) dealt one way or another as middle men; buying and selling: from peddling in the villages and petty shop-keeping to running large businesses and import and export companies. Against that, the comparative proportion of 7,297 non-Jews in this sector was only three quarters (74.5%) in the finance and insurance sectors, and 1.8 among the Jews as opposed to 13.5 among the non-Jews.

The Jews engaged in commerce, industry and crafts were differentiated from the non-Jews in these sectors also by the social and family class difference as seen from the following table.

 

Table 23: Class strata among the engaged in commerce, industry and crafts in Lithuania in 1923

Class Commerce Industry & Crafts
Jews Non-Jews Jews Non-Jews
Number % Number % Number % Number %
Employees 25,132 100.0 7.297 100.0 18,107 100.0 66,756 100.0
Owners 13,799 54.9 2,768 38.2 6,720 37.1 17,901 26.8
Family 7,585 30.1 839 11.5 3,941 21.8 14,601 21.9
Clerks 1,250 5.0 1,866 25.6 369 2.0 664 1.0
Workers 2,498 10.0 1,806 24.7 7,707 39.1 33,590 50.3

 

Whereas among the non-Jews there existed almost a symmetrical class differentiation between the owners, their families and their employees; among the Jews the integration of the family with the owner of the business stood out: in commerce-85%, in industry and crafts-58.9%. The division by business sectors did not change much before the War as is evident from the table below.

 

Table 25: Jewish artisans in Lithuania before the First World War
and afterwards, by business sectors (in Percent)

Sector 1897
Census
1923
Census
All sectors 100.0 100.0
Clothing, footwear & leather 52.0 52.2
Food 13.4 15.6
Building 11.0 9.6
Metal 7.8 9.2
Timber 6.0 4.6
Printing 2.1 3.0
Textiles 4.9 2.4
Chemicals 2.8 2.4

 

It would appear that in spite of all that Lithuanian Jewry had experienced as a result of the War, the artisans concentrated again, after 26 years, in the clothing, footwear, leather and textile industries.

The sociologist Ya'akov Leshchinsky defined the economic structure of Lithuanian Jewry as follows: the mass of Jews remained mostly petty bourgeois, petty shopkeepers, peddlers and independent artisans with a thin layer of parochial masters and also a slightly larger layer of middle class and intelligentsia.

        Jewish Banking and co-operatives

Many members of the Jewish middle class, especially the educated strata, who had already experienced to some extent the establishing of Jewish autonomy, mobilized their resources for the strengthening of the social economic basis of the Jewish masses and their livelihood. With the blessing and initiation of the Economics Committee at the Ministry for Jewish Affairs and with the assistance of the “Foundation”, a national financial system was established of co-operative credit societies. By the end of 1920, these were already active in 44 cities and towns and were named “Peoples Bank” (in Yiddish Folksbank). In addition to the positive local economic activity (extending loans etc) they were also of importance in the social and cultural sphere. In a number of places, the community organs and other organizations also used the bank building. There were also cases of the bank granting study scholarships and prizes for cultural activities.

In order to co-ordinate and regulate the activities of the Peoples Banks in time of need and crises and other difficulties, a central institution was established in 1921, formally called the “Central Jewish Bank for the Encouragement of Co-operation.” 71 Peoples Banks throughout the country linked to it, and the number of (dues paying) members reached 11,000. Over the years, the capital assets of the institutions increased, as did also the amount of deposits and savings. Thanks to that, the conditions were eased under which the loans were granted to members and public institutions. In 1930, 85 Peoples Banks existed in Lithuania with 22,262 members. In that year, 11,953 loans were granted to them and to others in a total amount of 10,249,159 Lit (approximately one million Dollars). A detail of the pectoral breakdown of the loans to members and the borrowing public that year, and details of the breakdown of the loans granted to the various sectors is given in the table below.

Although the Peoples Bank was open to non-Jews as well, this figure was no more than 5%. The work in the offices, the correspondence and the daily work routine was conducted in Yiddish, and this was also true of the national conventions and conferences, which took place every few years. This was therefore, a Jewish banking system spread throughout the cities and towns of Lithuania. At that time, the total deposits amounted to 14,113,413 Lit (approximately $1.4 million), of which 46% came from the members, 16% from institutions and 48% from non-members. If we take into consideration the members families and all others requiring the Peoples Banks' services, and that of its associates, then we can conclude that they served about two thirds of the Jewish population. Unlike the similar Lithuanian banks, which enjoyed cheap governmental credit, the Peoples Banks had to depend on deposits only. In 1933, a special bank was established to assist Jewish farmers (Yiddisher Landwirten Bank). The central office was in Kovno with 31 branches spread out in towns through the land.

 

The Central Jewish Bank

 

Table 26: Members of the Peoples Banks and borrowers,
by sectors and amount of loans (1930)

Sector No. of Members No. of Loans Loan Amounts (Lit)
Number % Number % Number %
All 22,262 100.0 11,953 100.0 10,249,159 100.0
Merchants and Shopkeepers 10,279 46.2 5,887 49.2 6,318,412 61.8
Artisans 3,819 17.1 3,192 18.3 1,041,380 10.2
Workers and Carters 1,818 8.2 489 4.1 186,709 1.4
Farmers 1,707 7.6 803 6.8 777,189 7.6
Office workers 1,226 5.5 951 8.0 524,577 4.2
Professionals 894 4.0 600 5.0 384,598 3.8
Industrialists 639 2.9 334 2.8 708,133 7.0
No defined trade 1,896 8.5 697 5.8 408,161 4.0

 

        Limitations and Discrimination by the Authorities

Notwithstanding the great contribution made by the Jewish co-operates and credits to the economic interests of the Jewish community in Lithuania, especially during periods of crises and difficulties, the Jewish minority nevertheless was not given the opportunity to integrate into the Lithuanian economy, due to a deliberate policy of discrimination practiced by the government agencies.

Beginning in the twenties when the socio-economic structure of urban Jewry already became fixed, the growing weight of the Lithuanians began to be evident in the urban economic sectors in the professional sphere and above all – in the public and governmental offices. This tendency swelled as the stream of village youths made for the towns on the one hand, and the deliberate policy of the authorities to absorb them, on the other hand. At the same time the economic situation of the Jews deteriorated more and more as steps were taken to push them out of a number of commercial branches and by the imposition of taxes. An added difficulty was the reduction in assistance from relatives in the USA as a result of the economic crises in 1929.

The economic discrimination against the Jews increased particularly during the thirties. The process of dispossession of the Jews from their economic status proceeded gradually but systematically. First of all, nearly all the Jews serving in the police force or the standing army were discharged. Out of 35,000 government and municipal officials in 1934, only 477 (1.35%) were Jewish; this number includes 273 teachers in Jewish schools.

That year a law was passed transferring the trade and export of flax to a governmental concern “Lietukis”, disregarding the fact that the Jews were the pioneers in this business. The same happened in the forestry business, in which the Jews had been involved for many generations, as well as the running of inter-urban bus services, in which too they had a large presence, both as owners and as drivers and mechanics. In addition, the Jews were pushed out of dealing in products which were considered monopolies, such as tobacco, matches, spirits, sugar, etc.

One of the main organizations which supported the tendency to dislodge the Jews and openly stood at the head of the campaign of incitement, particularly directed at the merchants and artisans, was the organization called “Verslas” (which means in Lithuanian occupation). The same name was given to their weekly publication. The movement's cry was “Verslininkai” meaning “Lithuania for the Lithuanians.” In order to advance Lithuanization in practice in the cities and towns, the organization demanded that the government expel the Jews who had reached Lithuania after 1918 and impose various restrictions on the remainder, such as on the sale of beer, trading in flour, grains and crops, and the owning of restaurants, cafes and public houses. They also demanded that the government transfer the market day to Saturday, to forbid all commercial activity on Sunday and to forbid Jewish ritual slaughter.

In spite of the calming declarations to the Jews uttered by leading governmental figures, the government did in effect adopt most of these demands, especially in the economic fiscal sphere. In addition, in a number of towns the markets and commercial centers were moved to locations far removed from the Jewish areas. The markets served as a source of income and often as the only source of income for the Jews.

As a result of the economic limitations and ill usage suffered by the Jews, the number of Jews active in commerce, industry and crafts, where the heavy handed policy was applied, was in constant decline in before the Second World War. Notwithstanding the fact that Jews owned most businesses and over half the industrial plants, their combined value was only a third of the value of all the plants (details of the data pertaining to this are given in the following chapter relating to the period of the Soviet regime, particularly in table 35). In addition, Jewish-owned plants were in concentrated food, timber, textiles, hides and printing. The Germans and the government firms owned most of the “heavy industry” (mines, peat, metals etc), and national concerns such as “Leitukis”-agricultural mechanization; “Pienocentras”-processing and marketing of milk products; “Maistas”-processing and marketing of meat products etc. In a few towns and rural communities the power plants, flower mills and small plants for the processing of agricultural products still remained in Jewish hands.

The small sector of industrialists owning large plants and some members of the middle class in the Jewish population enjoyed a very high standard of living, but they too were under pressure from the authorities in the economic financial sphere. In order to succeed in their businesses some of them were forced to enter into partnerships with Lithuanians, who enjoyed privileges in receiving economic concessions. Despite their fears, the Jews could not transfer their capital abroad because of legal constraints.

As mentioned, the policy of Lithuanization touched also the crafts. Lithuanians were encouraged to integrate in this field and this, of course, damaged the Jewish craftsmen. A special law demanded that craftsmen, in addition to being expert at their trade, should also have a mastery of both written and spoken Lithuanian and keep their books in that language. Many of the Jewish craftsmen had difficulty in complying with this demand, which came on top of the difficult economic situation, which had become worse with the imposition of heavy taxes. As a result, the number of Jewish craftsmen declined.

According to a survey made in 1937 by the research department of the Peoples Bank, it was found that in 211 communities, 12,093 craftsmen (the greater majority worked in the food and clothing industry), worked in 6,675 workshops owned by Jews. Although they constituted over half of all the workshops in the country (56%), compared to the number of Jewish craftsmen before the War, this showed a reduction of 13%. According to the above survey about one third (36%) of the craftsmen's second generation continued in the fathers' trade or in another craft. Almost half of them worked in clerical positions or in sales, 9.3% provided unskilled labor, 7.5% in commerce and shop-keeping and only 1.3% were professionals.

It is to be noted that among the professionals, especially doctors and lawyers, the ratio of Jews was very high (41%), but the absolute number fell from year to year due to the difficulties Jews experienced in getting entry into the institutes for higher learning, particularly for the study of medicine, agriculture and engineering. The number of Jewish students in Kovno University was reduced to 350 in 1940 (12% of the total Student body) whereas they had numbered 1,000 students in 1931 (25%). During those years the number of Jewish youths leaving for studies abroad increased greatly. Many of these preferred not to return as there was little opportunity for their integration and advancement in their professions. Greater yet was the problem of Jewish youths from the small towns, who could not find employment or income after they moved to the cities, but could not emigrate either, in view of the limitations imposed on the entry of immigrants into the desired host countries. In this reality, Lithuania became, before the Second World War, a sort of “Cage without hope” for the Jewish youth as described by the sociologist Ya'akov Leshchinsky.

 

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